A Graduate with a Dream Job: Airplane Designer

Michael Anderson will design planes for Scaled Composites, which builds the most advanced aircraft in the world.

Michael Anderson has a dream job: He’ll work as a design engineer for the company that built SpaceShipTwo, the space plane now being tested for commercial space flight.

The company, Scaled Composites, designs the most revolutionary aircraft in the world. One of its planes was the first to fly around the world without stopping to refuel; another holds the record for the longest non-stop flight. Scaled Composites also built the first privately-owned spaceship. And next year Scaled’s customer, Virgin Galactic, plans to take people into space on the SpaceShipTwo: The ticket price will be $200,000 a flight.

After he graduates in May, Anderson will join Scaled Composite’s design engineering team. He’ll help to design and fabricate the company’s aircraft.

Few college graduates are offered jobs designing planes. But Anderson is ideally suited for the job.  He has two majors, mechanical engineering and computer engineering, and had two internships in the aerospace industry: one at General Electric’s Aviation Systems; and another at Gulfstream Aerospace in Savannah, Georgia.

But perhaps most importantly, at NJIT he was president of the Society of Automotive Engineers, a student club that offers students a chance to build Baja cars and radio-controlled aero planes. He was part of the team that built an aero plane capable of lifting many times its weight. Two year ago, the team entered a national aero plane competition in Texas. The team placed in a few contest categories and came in fourth overall. That performance got the attention of recruiters from Scaled Composites. The recruiters were looking for top students with hands-on experience buildings planes, so they contacted Anderson. He was a junior then and couldn’t work for them that year.  But his final year at NJIT he sent his resume to Scaled. The company invited him in for an interview. One week later, they offered him the job.  

“It’s an ideal job for me,” says Anderson. “I like to design planes and I like to use my hands to fabricate them. At this job I’ll have the chance to do both.”

Michael is a scholar in the Albert Dorman Honors College and was recently named the Outstanding Honors College Student of 2012-2013. For him the Honors College is a family affair; his older brother graduated last year and two of his younger brothers are currently students. In this interview, Michael talks about his early schooling, when he was home-schooled by his parent, as well as his two majors and his lifelong love of planes.   

Why do you have a double major?

I liked both mechanical engineering and computer engineering   At first, I thought I’d study both for a year or so and then pick one. But I liked them equally so I double majored.

Is it doubly hard to have two majors?

It is labor intensive but it also makes some classes easier. Sometimes you learn from one class what you learn in another.  I take maximum credit loads as well as summer classes. Instead of 128 credits, I need about 200.  So I’m graduating in five years in May.

Did your double major help you find a good job?

Mechanical and electrical systems are being increasingly integrated in the aerospace industry. So having experience in both definitely gave me an edge.

When you were a junior you interned at General Electric’s Aviation Systems. Was that valuable? And how did you get the job?

I got the internship at the NJIT Career Fair. GE was there and a recruiter told me to apply online for the internship. I applied and they called me for an interview and hired me for the summer of 2011. This division of GE builds electro-mechanical actuation systems for commercial and military planes.  I was in the manufacturing department, so I saw how the systems were made. It is impossible to properly design a system if you don’t know how it will be manufactured. This internship gave me experience with manufacturing processes.

Your second internship was with Gulfstream Aerospace in Savannah, Georgia. How was that?

I worked in the stress analysis division, essentially working on aircraft structures.  I developed algorithms that evaluated the stresses on the components on business jets. Stress analysis is critical in the aerospace industry; stress engineers aim to reduce the weight of the plane yet keep it safe, two often contradictory design goals. It was a lot of fun to work on such high performance planes as the G6 jet.

Were you were home-schooled through high school?

Yes I was home-schooled until the end of high school. It was great because I was able to work on hands-on projects.  In high school, my dad taught me physics and calculus, but earlier my mother taught me most subjects.  My parents are passionate about learning, so that made it fun. 

You’re not the first in your family to attend NJIT, and not the last.

I have four brothers and we were home-schooled together. The first to come to NJIT was my older brother Matthew, who graduated in 2012 with a degree in physics. He works now for the U.S. Patent Office; he reviews patent applications for the government.  My brother Thomas is a junior studying applied math, and another brother, David, is a freshman studying actuarial science.

In your five years at NJIT, what have been the highlights for you?

I loved competing in the aero design project, sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers at NJIT, a group I was president of. I was part of a team of three mechanical engineering students who built an aero plane. We competed against teams from other top ranked engineering schools. Working on the plane allowed us to apply what we learned in our classes -- control systems, electro engineering, and mechanical engineering.  We placed in a few contest categories and had a great time on the road trip to Texas, where the contest was based. Another highlight of NJIT is the students: They are hardworking and down to earth and very helpful to each other.

Were you the kind of boy who whiled away your days building model airplanes?

I was very young, like about 5 or 6, when I started playing with Legos. Later, I became fascinated with birds and airplanes and flight. I’d build model planes, and later, radio controlled airplanes that actually flew. I’d go to the local high school field with my dad to fly the planes.  In 2005, when Scaled Composites sent SpaceShipOne into space for the first time, I knew that’s what I wanted to do: design and build revolutionary aircraft.  And now, eight years later, I’ll be doing just that. Planes have always captured my imagination. I love the idea of designing a machine that enables humans to do something they aren’t t naturally equipped to do: fly.

(By Robert Florida)